He wrote hundreds of songs, many recorded by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, and became a star in his own right. But later in life, Red Simpson would also be known for owning Monday nights at Trout’s nightclub in Oildale and for being the kind of guy you could strike up a conversation with or bum some beer money from in a pinch.
Considered one of the last living icons of the music that came to be known as the Bakersfield Sound, Simpson died this afternoon at a hospital in Bakersfield. He was 81.
Simpson had suffered a heart attack Dec. 18 after returning from a concert tour of the Pacific Northwest. Many friends and well-wishers had hoped he was on the mend and might even return to his familiar Monday night gig.
A short video posted on Facebook earlier today showed Red with his son, David, sitting on a sofa, playing some guitar and enjoying life.
“He seemed to be doing better. I was planning to go by and see him tonight,” said longtime family friend Gene Thome.
“I was outside,” said David Simpson, “when I heard him hollering for help from the bedroom.”
An ambulance was called and the son performed CPR on his dad until help arrived. But this time, Red could not be saved.
By Friday evening, word was spreading fast on social media. Haggard said on Facebook that Simpson “played a huge part in the Bakersfield Sound and was a dear friend of mine for over 50 years.” Haggard noted that Simpson was one of the original musicians on Haggard’s huge hit “Okie from Muskogee.”
Simpson had a long run as Capitol Records’ entry into country music’s truck-driving subgenre of the 1960s, recording songs such as “Roll, Truck, Roll” and “(Hello) I’m a Truck.” He never drove a commercial big-rig, however; he was merely playing a role developed by Ken Nelson, Capitol’s legendary coproducer/executive.
Performer and songwriter Buddy Mize met Simpson in the 1950s, when the Bakersfield Sound was being forged in barrooms and dance halls.
“He was part of the gold that people mined out of California,” Mize said from his Nashville home Friday.
Mize, whose older brother is Bakersfield Sound luminary Billy Mize, thought of Simpson as a brother as well. The two reconnected in the last year or so when Simpson was in Nashville to perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which put together a stunning tribute to the Bakersfield Sound that concluded its two-year run in 2013.
“We had such great times just laughing when we were in each other’s presence,” Mize said. “Because things were funny when Red was around.”
Music writer and historian Scott B. Bomar worked with Simpson on “Hello, I’m Red Simpson,” a 2012 career-spanning retrospective that featured five CDs and a 108-page hardcover book, the definitive account of the artist’s life and music.
Simpson was not receptive to Bomar’s overtures at first, the writer said Friday, but eventually the singer/songwriter warmed to the idea.
“We spent two years pulling everything together, hunting down tapes nobody had ever heard. I interviewed Red several times, we scanned photos at Red’s house,” Bomar said. “I felt it was important with so much of Red’s music not available on CD that it be remembered. I wanted to see it digitized, the story of his life from his lips.”
Simpson’s songs belong in rarefied company in the history of West Coast country music, said Bomar, a self-described Bakersfiled Sound “geek” who is currently writing a book on the music subgenre.
“In my opinion, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the twin pillars of the Bakersfield Sound. But directly under that is Red Simpson. He wrote more than 30 songs that Buck recorded. He wrote about eight or so songs that Merle recorded. Red’s fingerprints are on Buck’s and Merle’s songs as theirs are on his.”
As for why Simpson’s career never hit the stratospheric levels of his two peers, Bomar has his theories.
“Red just wasn’t really concerned with money or the business side of music or looking out for himself first, and that’s kind of what it takes to build that star machine. I think that he just had the heart of an artist.”
Born in Higley, Ariz., in 1934, Simpson was just following the path his brother Buster had laid out for him.
Buster Simpson saw music as a way out of Little Okie, the village of shacks and dirt-floor tents off Bakersfield’s Cottonwood Road where cotton- and potato-picking families consoled one another in their mutual poverty.
The family of John and Lillie Simpson, who brought their brood of 11 children out west from Rush Springs, Okla., in 1929, was just such a clan. Joe “Red” Simpson, the 12th and final hatchling, arrived during the family’s eight-year layover in Arizona. Brother Buster played guitar and stand-up bass in the clubs in and around Bakersfield in the late ’40s and early ’50s, most notably with Bill Woods and Billy Mize in an early incarnation of Woods’s Orange Blossom Playboys. The younger Simpson idolized them.
It wouldn’t be long before he would join them and blaze his own trail in country music.
Buster Simpson, 20 years older, would tell his little brother that once he reached 21 they would start a band together, but that day never came. Buster had gone to Idaho in 1952 to pick up some money doing drywall work, and one day a doctor called the Simpson home to say he was seriously ill. Buster didn’t last much longer. It was Hodgkin’s disease.
His brother’s death crushed Simpson’s heart and, suddenly adrift, he joined the U.S. Navy. He was just 18 when he shipped off to Korea. Aboard the U.S.S. Repose, a hospital ship, he met some fellow sailors who played music. They formed the Repose Ramblers, and every night aboard ship, right before the evening movie, they sang and picked for 30 minutes. The captain, P.J. Williams, liked them so much he bought them western shirts and sent them onshore to perform — at the Officers’ Club at Inchon one day, and a Korean orphans’ home on another.
Simpson mustered out of the Navy in 1955 and, swearing off cotton-picking, went to Bakersfield College on the G.I. Bill to learn sheet-metal work. What he really wanted to do was get on stage and pick guitar in the Bakersfield area’s many nightclubs. But Bakersfield was full of great bands and talented players, and none of the top acts had openings. “I wanted to play at the Blackboard or the Lucky Spot, but all I could get was the Wagon Wheel in Lamont for $5 a night,” he recalled.
He eventually started studying piano, getting tips from Buck Owens, George French, and Lawrence Williams, and in 1956, when Williams left Fuzzy Owen’s band at the Clover Club, Owen offered Simpson the job. After working for next to nothing for so long, Simpson was finally playing for what the boys called “whiskey money.”
Over the next few years, Simpson cut singles on three small labels: Lewis Talley’s Tally Records and Leon Hart’s Millie Records (both based in Bakersfield), and Los Angeles-based Lute Records. Then, in 1966, at the ripe old age of 32, he caught his big break.
Truck-driving songs were all the rage on country music radio, with the likes of Red Sovine, Dick Curless, Dave Dudley, Jerry Reed, and Kay Adams having established themselves as truck-stop staples. Ken Nelson wanted a slice of that pie for Capitol, and he chose Simpson to play the part. It was a good choice: Roll, Truck, Roll proved Simpson indeed had an aptitude for truck-drivin’ songs. He cut three more albums for Capitol in the next two years (Man Behind the Badge, Truck Drivin’ Fool, and A Bakersfield Dozen) and was given the opportunity to tour the country.
In 1966, he opened shows for Owens, including Buck’s March appearance at Carnegie Hall. He appeared on a half-dozen installments of the syndicated TV show “Buck Owens Ranch Show.” Later that year, he toured U.S. military bases in Germany and France, and in 1967 he went on tour as an opener for Haggard. In 1971, he signed with Gene Breeden’s label, Portland Records and recorded “(Hello) I’m a Truck.” “Hello, I’m a what?” Red responded when Breeden first told him the name of the song he wanted Simpson to record. The song reached No. 4 in December 1971 and spent 17 weeks on the country charts and hit No. 1 on radio playlists around the country.
Simpson’s final entry on the charts, “The Flying Saucer Man and the Truck Driver,” on Key Records, sputtered to No. 99 in 1979. He toured for three more years and then quit the road.
Simpson figured he had cut a dozen or more albums, and his work has turned up in another half-dozen compilation albums built around truck-driving themes. Simpson counts two songs recorded by Haggard as among his best: “Lucky Ol’ Colorado” and “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” (co-written with Haggard). “Very Far” is among his most profitable, having been recorded three times by Haggard and by such luminaries as Rosanne Cash, Connie Smith, Jeannie Seely, Roy Clark, Billy Mize, and Bonnie Owens. Other Simpson songs have been recorded by Wynn Stewart, Alan Jackson and, of course, Buck Owens.
Simpson continued to stay busy well into the 21st century, playing regular one-man-and-a-keyboard gigs at Trout’s, the Fairfax Grange, and the Rasmussen Senior Center, whose members often follow him from engagement to engagement. Simpson enjoyed a second brush with fame in fall 1995, when Junior Brown — known for his wizardry on the "guit-steel" double neck, hybrid guitar — brought him to Austin, Texas, for a duet recording of “Semi-Crazy,” a Brown composition in the Simpson trucker tradition. During that session, Simpson sang with Brown on “Nitro Express, ”a song Simpson had once covered before on the eponymous 1966 truck drivin’ album.
Simpson was honored in Nashville in March 2012 when he was asked to headline the grand opening of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s two-year exhibition on the Bakersfield Sound. He returned several times during the exhibit’s two-year run and basked in the warm, loving attention with grace and good humor.
— Portions of this report were excerpted from “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music” by Californian executive editor Robert E. Price.